Innovation is hard!

Close your eyes. Picture yourself as the person who created the next big thing. Your face is pictured next to the top story on CNN.com. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, in addition to every other major publication, feature you and your idea as today’s breaking news. You’re number one—the individual in the spotlight and the person on stage upon which every eye in the world is focused. Today, you’re known as the person who changed the world with so innovative an idea that everyone else can’t believe they didn’t think of it first. The idea seems so obvious now that it’s reality.

Open your eyes and step back into reality. It’s nice as a daydream to be sure, albeit somewhat unrealistic. Innovation isn’t that easy and the rewards aren’t necessarily that big, but one thing about that scenario is probably true 90% of the time. Innovative ideas are obvious.

Just look at innovations that occurred over the past few decades. Digital cameras are a no brainer—who wouldn’t want to take, review, delete, and retake pictures on the fly? Cell phones were pure genius, connecting the world 24/7. Laptop computers turn any place you can sit down into a high-tech, globally connected, extremely powerful office. Of course, side-loading washing machines are gentler and more efficient than their top-loading counterparts! All of these ideas are just so simple!

But for some reason, it took years upon years of hard work to create each of these now obvious devices. Today, just about everyone has a digital camera. Laptops are in every coffee shop, on every college campus, and on the laps of every couch potato in the world. Most appliance stores don’t even sell top-loading washers anymore because nobody really wants to buy them.

So, if any average Joe, Frank, or Sally can recognize an innovative idea when they see one, and if once an idea has been innovated into existence everyone slaps their hand to their forehead, then why is it just so hard to innovate new and creative ideas day in and day out?

That’s a hard question to answer. In a nutshell, we, as humans, just have a tough time tapping into our inner creativity. It’s an easier process for some than others, but we’re all capable of being creative. We just need a little push—some helps and cues—to help get the creative juices flowing. So what’s the right way to attack this problem? What’s the best way to drill into ourselves and tap that elusive creativity?

The answer to that question is that there is no “right” answer. It will be completely different for each individual, but here are some tools and tips that I use on a regular basis. They help me feel more creative, and hopefully they’ll help you as well!

  • Look at words, long and short, using multiple typesettings.
    I find that looking at the arrangement of letters within a word can sometimes spur creative ideas. Changing up the typeface helps to accentuate different letterforms and shows the eye some interesting lines and curves. Also, think of all the different meanings for a word. Ideas can hide in definitions that you wouldn’t normally consider.
  • Examine cool documents, websites, designs, or ideas others have created through innovation.
    Looking through small innovations others have created can be a great way to get your own innovative juices flowing. Maybe you can further improve on their idea as a start, or perhaps you’ll think of a new use or direction for their idea. Don’t steal their work, but figure out what the “next step” should be and do it! (There’s nothing new under the sun, after all).
  • Sleep on it.
    Some of the world’s greatest innovations must have been dreamed up while their creators were asleep. Look at soft, solid colors before going to bed, read a simple short story, or view soothing images of beautiful sunsets, glistening mountaintops, peaceful lakes, and the like before drifting off.
  • Listen to music.
    You never know if that absolutely perfect idea will strike with the next sweet chord of your favorite song. Try different genres, styles, versions, artists, and so on to see if that helps you get in the creative mood. But listening to music passively probably won’t help you. Close your eyes, lean back in your chair, and focus on the words, then the music. You might be surprised how much it helps. If nothing else, you’ll feel more relaxed afterward!

Innovation is hard to quantify before it’s realized. It’s not an exact science and you may have trouble “forcing” it to come. It’s more of a natural, hit-you-on-the-side-of-the-head type of thing. Relax—innovation will happen, but it’ll undoubtedly occur when you least expect it.

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